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A simple pianist with that touch of elegance

Haefliger, known for freshness and artistry, makes his Disney Hall debut Friday.

January 17, 2008|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

Even in classical music's rarified precincts, spectacle has always been a draw. Yet some performers consistently fight the urge to show off. Those at the keyboard are known as pianists' pianists, and unfussy music-making is their hallmark.

Andreas Haefliger, who has appeared regularly in Los Angeles but will make his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut Friday night, is such an artist. Known primarily for his thoughtful but never flashy interpretations of classic Austro-German repertory, he is scheduled to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor," with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen through Sunday.

"His playing is so elegant," said baritone Matthias Goerne, who first worked with Haefliger on a Schubert lieder album more than a decade ago. "Everything is delicate, and he is so careful and sensitive and plays with fantastic taste. One of the biggest things about his playing is that it's never rude or oppressive. You may have to listen two or three times, but then you will discover his world. He gives you something really serious."

Haefliger was supposed to begin this week's Philharmonic visit with a performance Tuesday of Olivier Messiaen's "Des Canyons aux Etoiles" (From the Canyons to the Stars), one of the 20th century's most challenging pairings for piano and orchestra -- and a Salonen specialty to boot.

That changed last month, however, when he withdrew from the concert (he was replaced by Marino Formenti; see review on Page 8) while keeping his commitment to perform the "Emperor." Cynics may have wondered if the cancellation was a failure of nerve. But the truth, according to the pianist, was purely mechanical.

"I'm not happy about not playing it," Haefliger, 45, said by phone from his home in Vienna, where he spends about half the year. "But playing it and then performing the 'Emperor' three days afterward was impossible."

He maintained that he could have played the Beethoven after Messiaen's "Turangalila Symphony," another daunting work, but "Canyons" is different.

"It's the clusters of the notes, not the piece's difficulty," he said. "It takes several days before the hands return to their former shape. I said yes to playing it without giving it enough thought."

The miscalculation was a rare lapse in the career of a man who has recently devoted careful attention to performing all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas in an unconventional manner. Rather than playing the sonatas in recitals devoted exclusively to them, as Andras Schiff is doing at Disney Hall this season and next, Haefliger has been studding his Beethoven programs with music by other composers, including living ones such as Britain's Thomas Ades.

"I was going to play a straightforward Beethoven cycle, and I asked 'Why?' " he said. "And I realized that it was because that's what I heard everyone else doing. But those evenings I find sometimes a little bit too long, and there is even a certain amount of monotony you can't avoid. So I wanted to think of the Beethoven sonatas as bearers of what was to come and sometimes the inheritors of what came before."

Like many performers, Haefliger chafes at being pigeonholed. He acknowledged his immersion in Beethoven, Schubert and other Romantic-era composers but suggested that he's branched out considerably, pointing especially to his success in Bartok's music.

"I've always thought that the musical languages need to talk to each other," he said. "You need to play certain repertoire in order to illuminate the other. In future, there will be Debussy and Ligeti and things one doesn't expect."

Yet his repertory choices aren't what his colleagues most praise. Like Goerne, they laud his intelligence, artistic values and sound.

"I like everything about him," said Andras Fejer, the cellist of the Takacs Quartet, with which he has enjoyed a long-standing if intermittent collaboration. "The imagination, the thinking about phrasing, the digging down to see how things are built up and, above all, his touch on the keys. It reminds me of a string instrument. It's utterly beautiful, the singing, resonant quality."

Haefliger, who is married to the American-born flutist Marina Piccinini, has music in his blood. His father was the noted Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger, who during the 1950s and '60s was a stalwart of the Deutsche Grammophon record label. And his brother, Michael, is a Juilliard-trained violinist who segued into arts administration and has run the prestigious Lucerne Festival in Switzerland since 1999.

Although he died last spring, Ernst Haefliger looms large in his son's life, with many of the singer's virtues found in the pianist's artistry. The younger man also bears a striking resemblance to his father.

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